The skills that two recent Burnsville High School graduates learned in their high school auto shop will soon take them from under the hoods of cars into a college classroom.

While in high school, Jacob Mischel and Nick Hernandez took multiple automotive classes from teacher Russ Tesmer, and both plan to use that foundation to study engineering at four-year colleges in the fall.

Mischel plans on majoring in electrical engineering at North Dakota State University and Hernandez will pursue mechanical engineering at the University of St. Thomas.

The students' plans show just how versatile coursework in career and technical education can be, said Tesmer.

"Having this background … it really helps students who are interested in engineering as well as being automotive technicians," said Tesmer, who has been teaching at Burnsville since 2000. "These guys are using their automotive knowledge as something to build on."

Tesmer teaches classes in small-engine technology, consumer automotive and welding and auto body repair, as well as courses on topics like photography when needed.

Hernandez is also interested in physics and wants to become a General Motors engineer one day. He said he's always loved cars and was able to rattle off specifics of different makes and models.

"When I saw they had these classes at the high school, of course I leapt at it," Hernandez said.

He enjoys the logic and deductive reasoning that goes into fixing cars, he said — skills he'll need as an engineer.

Mischel said the more he learned about fixing cars, "the more I wanted to know."

"It's rewarding to get a vehicle that has something wrong with it — maybe it won't start, maybe it's not running properly — and spend some time on it," he said. "And when you drive it out, it's working perfectly."

In early May, the two students participated in the 2013 Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition at Hennepin Technical College, where they took second place in Minnesota. It's the best Burnsville has done in 10 years of competing, Tesmer said.

The pair placed first on the written test but second in the diagnostic portion, so they just missed going to nationals.

The contest, one of the biggest of its kind nationally, challenges teams to fix a new Ford Focus that's "bugged" with several problems, said Tesmer. They have 90 minutes to do it.

Hernandez and Mischel were one of two teams that fixed all of the car's problems and drove it across the finish line.

Mischel attributed their success to "the great teaching I've gotten from Mr. Tesmer over the years, and the great know-how," he said.

Tesmer remembers when, several years ago, a language arts teacher got into an accident while driving to school, wrecking the entire front end of her Chevrolet Lumina.

Right away, she came to Tesmer to fix it — and he just happened to have a Lumina in the school's auto shop.

"I said, 'Look guys, we're going to modify the curriculum for the day,'" said Tesmer. "It was one of those things where I wanted to see if we could do it."

They did it. With help from his students, Tesmer fixed her car for a fraction of what she would've paid an auto body shop.

The incident is an example of the kind of real-world learning that students in his classes experience.

"It's real good for hands-on learners," Tesmer said. "Some people need to get out of their desk."

He said the classes "add relevance to what the core classes are doing. You can't fix a car without knowing math, and you also can't do it without communication skills."

But technical education has seen cuts in the last decade at Burnsville, Tesmer said. Several years ago there were four teachers in Tesmer's department, but last year they were down to 1.7 positions. Next year, they will return to two positions.

Tesmer said he "hopes the pendulum is swinging in the other direction," with schools realizing the classes' value.

Meanwhile, Hernandez and Mischel are full of ideas on how to improve cars. Both would like to see them made more accessible, so it's easier to make repairs.

Hernandez said he'd like to design modular headlights, so owners can take them apart and fix what's wrong without having to buy a whole new headlight.

This summer they'll be busy earning money for college. They'll also be working on their own cars — Mischel has a 1997 Chevrolet Camaro and Hernandez has a 2001 Pontiac Vibe — and fixing the cars of family and friends.

Hernandez said he expects tinkering with cars to be a lifelong interest.

"It's something that I'll always love."

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283